Thursday is Delt and Trap Day

Thursday is Delts and Traps day. Delts or the Deltoid Muscle is what you think of as your shoulders. There are actually three parts: the Anterior or front of the delt, the Lateral or side, and the Posterior or back. Exercises for this day must hit all three areas.

Traps are the Trapezius muscle or what you might think of as your upper back ascending to the back of the neck (the links I’ve provided offer more detailed explanations as well as graphics).

The exercises I performed Monday and Tuesday worked both of these areas to some degree, but today I focus specifically on building these areas (by tearing them down with weight training).

I suppose I should make some corrections and offer an explanation at this point. There’s a difference between weightlifting and weight training. I was reading an article this morning written by Arnold Schwarzenegger where he describes the difference:

For bodybuilding success in the gym is all about weight training rather than weightlifting. The goal isn’t to see how many pounds you can lift, but to use resistance training to develop, shape and sculpt your muscles. Of course, when you train, you also get stronger, though that isn’t the primary goal.

Weightlifting creates a different kind of physique than bodybuilding does. While weightlifters frequently do a lot of bodybuilding-type workouts, they generally concentrate on training with the heaviest weights possible for very low reps — triples (three reps), doubles (two reps) and singles (one all-out repetition). This approach is designed to create maximum strength, but it doesn’t produce the kind of size, definition and symmetry that you get when using a true bodybuilding routine.

I experienced a mea culpa moment when I realized I was using these two terms interchangeably. This is a consequence of doing weightlift…uh, weight training without knowing all of the technical language. My apologies.

This also introduces a side issue as to whether weight training or weightlifting is the better goal for the senior. After all, the primary goal for seniors here isn’t necessarily “sculpting” our bodies, but retaining or even increasing our lean muscle mass, maintaining strength, as well as general health and quality of life for a longer period of time than if we were sedentary. My personal preference is weight training because it represents less of a risk of injury. Even imagining lifting some of the insanely heavy weights that power lifters are into makes me nervous. That said, especially if you have a background in weightlifting, you may want to go that route. Certainly people like Brooks Kubik would recommend that option.

Moving on, you may be wondering why I’ve ordered my exercises for the week the way I did. I credit my son David for this. When we went back to the gym together about two years ago or so, somewhere in there, he taught me, based on his experiences serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, that for a workout such as mine, it’s best to start out with the large muscle groups and work toward the smaller groups. Chest, back and legs all involve large muscles while delts, traps, biceps, and triceps are smaller.

I put my leg workout on Wednesdays because when you work your chest and back, you are also, to some degree, working on all the smaller muscles. By working legs between the larger upper body muscles and the smaller ones, I’m giving those smaller muscle groups a chance to recover so that by the time Thursday and Friday roll around, they are rested somewhat and I will be able to perform my exercises more effectively.

Now on with the show. Here’s a typical Thursday weight training session for me:

As usual, I shoot for 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps each with a 60 second rest max between sets. All exercises are performed in the free weight room.

Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Press

seated shoulder press
Seated shoulder press

This is the standard in shoulder building exercises, although it works the triceps as well. I adjust the bench so it supports my back vertically. I position one dumbbell on each side of me on the floor, pick them up, lift them to shoulder height, and then press upward explosively, lower more slowly, and repeat. I prefer to perform this move seated as I am able to focus more on the lift without being concerned about my balance.

Advantages: Good exercise to start your “shoulder” day as it hits all sides of the deltoid, though mainly I feel it in the front delts.

Pitfalls: No real disadvantages except like other exercises requiring the assistance of the tricep (such as bench presses), if your triceps are weak or tire easily, as you approach the height of the lift, you may feel you are losing control of the weight. Never push yourself to the point where you feel like you’re going to drop the dumbbell. You’re endangering yourself and potentially others who are working out nearby.

Dumbbell Seated Shrugs

I perform this move seated as well mainly because I use heavy (for me) weights. In fact, using 70 pound dumbbells, I have to remove them from and return them to the rack one at a time. I position the dumbbells on either side and slightly behind my seat. I can also go heavier because the range of motion for a shrug is quite short.

The move isn’t really complicated. I grab a dumbbell in each hand and while holding my arms at my side, shrug my shoulders. You’re not really working your delts (shoulders) but rather engaging your traps.

Advantages: Since the range of motion is short, I can use heavier dumbbells than I do for any other exercise (although I may have to amend my thinking and go lighter with more reps to get this stubborn muscle to grow). Great exercise for thickening the upper traps.

Pitfalls: The hardest part of this move for me is holding 70 lbs in each hand and maintaining my grip for up to 15 reps. This move requires a strong hand grip which is the most limiting factor for me.

Dumbbell Lateral Standing Side Raise

I remember when I started this exercise about six months ago, I had to use extremely light weights, maybe 10 lbs max in each hand. Obviously, this was an underdeveloped area of my shoulders as it hits the lateral delt more than the front or back. I must say having doubled the amount of weight I can lift in six months seems like an accomplishment to me and I’ve noticed that my shoulders have gained significantly during that time. I stand with a dumbbell in each hand with my arms at my side and then lift to either side until my arms are parallel to the floor.

Advantages: Good for working the lateral delt and this exercise produces noticeable results in a relatively short time period.

Pitfalls: Besides really hurting at first (well, lifting always hurts to a certain degree, as in “feel the burn”), I haven’t noticed any significant downside or risk. As with all shoulder exercises though, don’t go amazingly heavy as damaging a shoulder will pretty much end your ability to do most upper body weight training moves.

Dumbbell Standing Front Raise

This is kind of the same move as the lateral raise but instead of lifting the weight to your side from the starting position, you lift in front of you until your arms are parallel to the floor. This hits more the anterior or front delt. I had the same experience with this move as I did with the previous one, having to start with very light weight dumbbells (10 lbs) in order to perform the lift. I’ve also seen good results and can now regularly do this move using 20 pound dumbbells.

Advantages: Targets the anterior deltoid.

Pitfalls: Same caveats as with the lateral raise.

Bent Over Standing Lateral Raise

This one hits the posterior or rear delts and is also a challenging move at first. I select my dumbbells, one in each hand, and assume a standing position with feet shoulder width apart. I position the dumbbells in front of me, bend at the waist until my torso is parallel or near-parallel to the floor, and then lift each dumbbell away from my body directly to my side. As I said, this engages the rear delts and to some degree the traps.

I also had to start fairly light on this one but have worked up to 25 pound dumbbells.

Advantages: Works both the rear delts and the traps.

Pitfalls: Start light as this is a very challenging move, both in the execution and in keeping yourself completely bent over. There’s a tendency on the lift to raise up your body to assist in the lift, which would be cheating and limiting the effectiveness of the move.

Now I Have One of Two Options

This is another situation where I switch back and forth between a particular exercise, performing the first one week and the second (typically) on the following week. The first option is:

Upright Cable Rows

This one works the traps and I find it somewhat less exhausting than the alternative which I’ll mention subsequently. I attach a t-bar to the cable of the weight stack (click the link for this exercise above to get the visual) and then adjust the cable pulley assembly to the lowest point on the machine. Then using a medium grip on the bar with both hands, I stand and explosively pull the bar about shoulder height, lower more slowly, and then repeat.

Advantages: Strong move for hitting the traps, though you’ll feel it in your biceps as well.

Pitfalls: Going too heavy on this move can lead to shoulder injuries, especially if you find yourself having to “cheat” by engaging your torso. There’s also a tendency (at least with me) to be tempted to use the legs to assist the lift.

Here’s the other option.

Standing Dumbbell High Rows

Standing dumbbell high rows
Standing dumbbell high rows

This is more or less the same move but with dumbbells. I usually pick something challenging such as 50 pound dumbbells, one in each hand. I stand slightly bent at the waist and then explosively pull the weights up to near shoulder height, lower more slowly and then repeat. This is an extremely taxing move and I find myself getting out of breath easily so I typically don’t perform up to 15 reps per set. If I do 10 reps for each set of three, I call it good. Sometimes I don’t even do that many.

Advantages: This exercise mainly hits the traps but also the biceps and delts. On one occasion, when I performed this move, a women (the wife of one of the “regulars”) said (admiringly) that I was an animal. Yeah, a huffing and puffing sweaty animal. Still, it’s nice to be noticed.

Pitfalls: This exercise carries the same or greater risk of shoulder injury than the cable rows. Also, a couple of times, I pulled the weights up too close to my face and nearly hit myself on the chin. Make sure you pull straight up and not inward or outward.

Especially when I end Delt/Trap day with the dumbbell high rows, I’m feeling the effort. Since this is the day after leg day, my lower back is usually feeling the strain, so I just do some ab work and then go to cardio.

That’s it for Thursday. For the next blog, Friday is Bicep and Tricep day.

Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

St Francis of Assisi


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